President Barack Obama made a visit to the Stanford University campus June 24, meeting with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage at Memorial Auditorium before about 1,700 audience members to discuss the promotion of product innovation and entrepreneurship worldwide.
Young business owners from Kenya, Peru and Egypt shared the stage for about an hour with the president and with Zuckerberg, founder of the world’s largest and most successful social network. In total, 170 countries and 20 governments were represented at the White House-sponsored Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
Later, President Obama met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and participated in a Google Hangout with three other business owners in a private session, also related to international entrepreneurship.
The panel discussion, moderated by Mr. Obama, was a highlight of the seventh Global Entrepreneurship Summit, previously hosted by the United States and the governments of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Morocco and Kenya. In bringing the summit back to the United States, the president used the occasion to talk about his commitment to building bridges between nations to tackle global challenges.
Issues in Common: Legal, Governmental, Cultural
The president listened to the stories of how the entrepreneurs got the ideas for their businesses and the hurdles they had to overcome in getting started. Each talked about legal issues, government red tape, institutional biases and cultural problems they had to solve before and after they began doing business.
“Each country has its own culture, and there’s going to be sometimes some cultural barriers,” Obama said. “Whether it’s attitudes about women and what they can do, or whether it’s attitudes about young people and how seriously [business people] take a young person. But here in the United States, and particularly in Silicon Valley, that’s begun to change.
“But then, there’s also basic issues like financing and having access to capital, particularly if it’s a new idea and doesn’t fit the existing models the banks and financial institutions may have.”
A female entrepreneur from Egypt explained how legal and funding problems and general push-back from institutional sources (“Egypt is not startup-friendly,” she said) caused her to “do workarounds” with almost everything in order to get her business off the ground.
Belief in the Idea Kept Her Going Each Day
“I’m a woman, I’m young, and that was a problem,” she said. “The only thing that kept us going was the belief in our idea and that we could add value to people’s lives. That was the only thing that got me up in the morning to go to work.”
Mr. Obama summed up the conversation by magnifying a statement Zuckerberg had made earlier.
“It starts with a passion,” he said. “If you start off saying, ‘I just want to make money,’ but there’s no clear mission behind it, when you start hitting some of these barriers, sometimes it’s very hard to push through them.
“With respect to some of the barriers you’re talking about, in the U.S. we’ve been trying to take best practices and learn lessons about what’s working and what’s not. In the grants that we’re providing, for the training that we’re providing, what these summits have been really useful in doing is hearing directly from entrepreneurs that ‘This program doesn’t work as well as it could,’ and ‘This one works really well.'”
President Encouraging Governments to Listen to Entrepreneurs
President Obama said his administration is encouraging governments to listen to and hear from entrepreneurs to build “a different kind of culture. In the U.S., we’ve been trying to simplify processes and use technology to solve some of these problems. You shouldn’t have go all the way across a town like Cairo to an office and find out the person you want isn’t there, so you have to reschedule and go back through all kinds of traffic, and so on.
“If you can go on the Net and do a lot of that work ahead of time, that can make a huge difference in accelerating the process that you are doing.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook now serves as the Internet home for more than 50 million small businesses. “A lot of people use their Facebook page as their primary presence for communicating with people and attracting new customers,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg Talks About FB Start Program
He also talked about the company’s startup program, FB Start.
“We give entrepreneurs free access to tools from Facebook and other places, in order to help get started on business,” Zuckerberg said. “We give companies tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Facebook tools to get started, but it’s also important to help people to use the tools, so we do these entrepreneurship workshops around the world for people who are starting to create technical companies, but also for small businesses.”
President Obama thought back to his 2008 campaign, one that turned out to be a landmark use of new-gen IT in getting people to back his candidacy and to encourage people to vote.
“We were early adopters of technology and we were successful—not because I knew what I was doing, but because a bunch of 20-year-olds came to me and said, ‘Hey there’s this new thing called MySpace, ‘” the president said with a smile.
“Ouch,” Zuckerberg said.
“That was just a little dig there,” the president said, laughing. “The point is, they had all this stuff that I’d never heard of. If I had tried to maintain control, and say, ‘No, no, we’re going with pamphlets, because I’m used to pamphlets, and I can control what’s in the pamphlet,’ then I might not be sitting here.”
Obama Meets With Google CEO
Shortly after 1 p.m., members of the press were led into the 200-seat Pigott Theater, adjacent to where Obama had delivered remarks and moderated the panel earlier in the afternoon. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, could be seen pacing nervously behind the stage as he awaited POTUS.
On the stage, a gray backdrop read “Google for Entrepreneurs.” Beside it, four entrepreneurs from four different cities—London, Erbil, Seoul and Mexico City—fidgeted as they, too, awaited the president, using a Google Hangout application.
“This is terrific,” Mr. Obama said, bounding onto the stage.
Pichai introduced the Hangout session, and Mr. Obama smiled, then waved as Pichai mentioned each city. The president remarked how impressive it was that the technology made it seem like the entrepreneurs were “right in front of me.”
As press members were led out, Mr. Obama asked the entrepreneurs about the work they do.
The president’s motorcade departed Stanford for Moffett Federal Airfield shortly thereafter, heading for Seattle.
Photo courtesy of the White House